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Glorious Glasgow

Get your culture fix in hip Scottish city

Amy Laughinghouse Special to the American-Statesman
The Cran is a cozy vegan and vegetarian cafe in Glasgow's foodie haven Finnieston. [Contributed by Amy Laughinghouse]

Picture two sisters. You admire them both for their openness and effervescence, their charm and their wit. Yet they couldn’t be more different. That’s how I imagine Edinburgh, Scotland’s sophisticated capital, and Glasgow, the country’s biggest, boldest, brashest city. 

I’ll admit, I’ve had a crush on Edinburgh for years. With her perfectly picturesque Royal Mile — a cascade of cobblestones that flows from eye-catching Edinburgh Castle down to historic Holyroodhouse Palace — she’s the Instagram star, a polished beauty and senior class president voted “Most Likely to Succeed.”

But now, after just one visit, I’ve fallen hard for the crooked grin of good-time girl Glasgow. A UNESCO City of Music, home of the Glasgow School of Art and a graffiti mural trail, she’s a tattooed, smoky-eyed singer-songwriter ditching class to busk on Buchanan Street with her second-hand guitar.

Glasgow first made its reputation as a rough-and-ready international port and shipbuilding hub straddling the River Clyde. But as the river silted up and ships were overtaken by speedier forms of transportation, Glasgow began to focus on building its creative street cred instead.

While there’s hardly a part of this youthful university city that hasn’t experienced a mod makeover, I’m drawn to the neighborhoods left of center: the West End, Finnieston and the north bank of the River Clyde.

RIVERSIDE REVAMP

Glasgow’s creative roots run deep, at least as far back as the 19th century when architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh helped to develop and popularize art nouveau style in his native Glasgow. Today, he’s a Glaswegian icon, with gift shops selling mugs and T-shirts emblazoned with his mustachioed, bushy-browed countenance, like a Scottish Karl Marx or Che Guevara, minus the political overtones. 

The Big G really began to embrace its artsier elements in the 1990s, when it was crowned European City of Culture and U.K. City of Architecture and Design. With the dawn of the new millennium, the riverside’s abandoned shipyards and docks gave way to visually arresting venues like the evocatively named SEC Armadillo auditorium, the UFO-like SSE Hydro arena and the award-winning Riverside Museum, a jagged steel and glass structure housing a “heavy metal” (ahem) collection of trains, trolleys, buses, automobiles, fire engines and subway cars. There’s even a 19th-century ship berthed out back.

The Clydeside Distillery, which opened in November 2017, is the riverside’s most recent addition. Its lowland single malt Scotch won’t be ready to drink for a few years yet, but the facility is already a popular attraction, with a restaurant, a multimedia exhibition exploring Glasgow’s whisky-making heritage, a shop selling various varieties of Scotch, and a tour of the distillery itself, housed in a 19th-century clock tower and glass box addition holding two gleaming copper stills.

“When Glasgow does something, it doesn’t just try to fit in,” says Bridgeen Mullen, visitor center manager for the Clydeside Distillery. “Glaswegians create something unique that stands out.”

HOW THE WEST WAS WON

One of Glasgow’s most uniformly attractive neighborhoods is the West End, home to the University of Glasgow and the Kelvingrove and Hunterian museums. But amid this imposing Neo-Gothic grandeur, Glasgow's spunky spirit still shines through.

At Òran Mór, a former church that now contains a bar, restaurant and performance hall, enjoy lunchtime theater at “A Play, a Pie and a Pint.” Afterward, shop for handmade gifts and housewares made by local artists at the aptly named Quirq boutique and rummage through carefully curated vintage fashions — some 200 years old — at Starry Starry Night, which has provided clothing and accessories for period dramas like “Downton Abbey.”

For more West End drama, take a stroll down Ashton Lane. This cinematic street is flanked by picturesque brick-front pubs and restaurants, including the Ubiquitous Chip, with three bars, a leafy central courtyard, a rooftop deck and a restaurant and brasserie serving Scottish classics like haggis, neeps (turnips or swedes) and tatties (potatoes).

FINNIESTON BRINGS ON THE FUNK

The Times of London named Finnieston “the hippest place to live in the U.K.” in 2016, based largely on the burgeoning culinary scene of this neighborhood, which is sandwiched between the West End and the river. If Finnieston is Glasgow’s gourmet paradise, then its main drag, Argyle Street, is the highway to heaven, lined by independent restaurants, pubs and coffee shops. 

The Gannet was an early pioneer, opening on Argyle Street in October 2013. The owners transformed a previously derelict building into an industrial-chic restaurant with exposed brick walls, a corrugated metal bar and a proudly seasonal Scottish menu. Across the road at Alchemilla, minimal, Scandinavian-style surroundings keep the focus on the open kitchen, where chefs prepare Mediterranean salads and sharing plates that seem so healthy and fresh, you’ll feel virtuous even if you gorge like a glutton.

Next door, Six by Nico serves a six-course tasting menu based on a specific memory or place, which changes every six weeks. On my visit, the theme is Vietnamese street food. Every course, from the spring roll starter to the “Vietnamese coffee” (basically, a decadent Asian sundae), is superb. With its adventurous flavors and impeccable plating, Six is definitely one to watch.

Glasgow has also developed a reputation for vegan-friendly fare — a far cry from the traditional notion of blood-pudding-and-haggis Scottish grub. Finnieston’s the 78 is a vegan pub that feels like a '70s student living room, with avocado green sofas, mismatched tables and chairs and occasional live music — although a poster advertising the bands Acid Cannibals and Cartilage does seem at odds with the pub’s dietary restrictions. The Cran is equally comfy and even cozier, a tiny stone-and-brick vegan and vegetarian cafe where artists are encouraged to exhibit and sell their creations.

Just off Argyle Street, the Hidden Lane is a warren of independent businesses and ateliers. In addition to a tearoom and the Lean Factory (a cafe/bakery that eschews flour and refined sugar), a few studios and shops here sell artsy items and groovy gifts. At Porteous & Co, I’m tempted by the “udderly” charming selection of homewares featuring shaggy Highland “coos” by painter Vicki Dreyer, while at Decadent Riot, I find a hilariously irreverent array of wee treats that range from naughtily named toiletries to change purses that look like old cassette tapes.

THE CITY OF SMILES

Glasgow’s appeal, however, goes beyond the impressive food, the unusual shops and the art and music scene. It’s the city’s personality that makes it really special.

In 2017, Glasgow was voted the friendliest city in the U.K., and Rough Guide had previously deemed it the friendliest city in the world — a fact not lost on the tourism board, which has adopted the hashtag #peoplemakeglasgow. I experience this easy hospitality time and again, including encounters with a kindly woman who gives me directions without my even having to ask and a security guard in a posh dress shop who greets me with a grin and a chat instead of the steely side-eye I’d expect.

“We’re quite curious people, Glaswegians — friendly and open,” says Zoe Cameron, owner of Decadent Riot. “We’re warm at heart.”

It is that warmth, combined with a quiet confidence and unapologetic individuality, that makes this city so effortlessly, indelibly cool.

ALSO IN TRAVEL: Nature, comfort combine with new ‘glamping’ Airstreams at LCRA park

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Fly into Glasgow Airport.

Tourism info: peoplemakeglasgow.com

Stay:

The Apex Hotel is contemporary, comfortable and conveniently situated in Glasgow’s City Centre, with friendly staff and a commendable breakfast menu. apexhotels.co.uk/apex-city-of-glasgow-hotel

Attractions:

City Centre Mural Trail: citycentremuraltrail.co.uk

Riverside Museum. Free entry. glasgowlife.org.uk/museums/venues/riverside-museum

Clydeside Distillery. theclydeside.com

Òran Mór: A Play, a Pie and a Pint. oran-mor.co.uk

Shop:

Quirq, facebook.com/quirqglasgow

Starry Starry Night Vintage Clothing, starrystarrynightvintage.co.uk

Decadent Riot, decadentriot.co.uk

Porteous & Co, porteousandco.co.uk

Eat and drink:

The Gannet, thegannetgla.com

Alchemilla, thisisalchemilla.com

Six by Nico, sixbynico.co.uk

The 78, the78cafebar.com

The Cran, thecran.co.uk